There was no escaping Thursday’s mugginess at Bellerive during the PGA Championship’s opening round, but one also couldn’t escape the crowd; most of which got up early to catch a particular pairing.
Defending champion Justin Thomas teed off at 8:23 a.m. alongside Rory McIlroy and some guy named Tiger a bunch of folks are apparently interested in. The trio didn’t set the world (or the leader board) on fire during their first 18, but they still enjoyed a large and engaged gallery throughout the day.
“Yeah, Thursday morning, it was pretty cool to be out there 8:30 in the morning and have an atmosphere like that,” McIlroy said after the round. “J.T. and I were saying it’s going to get a little crazy tomorrow afternoon. So we’re looking forward to that.”
Thomas echoed the sentiment during his post-round words.
“It was pretty wild out there for a Thursday,” Thomas said. “There was a lot of people. Very respectful. It was a fun day. It was very, very benign conditions there for the first 14, 15 holes. We got a little breeze like this, 10 miles an hour…But, yeah, it was a fun one out there.”
The gallery cheered both younger golfers plenty, but it was also apparent most in attendance would like to see Tiger Woods complete his career bounce-back with winning a major title here in St. Louis. The cheers following just about his every shot proved as much, and one even noticed NFL Hall of Famers Marcus Allen and Aeneas Williams among observers. The latter followed much of the round on foot with his family, cheering Tiger on after every hole.
Tiger’s fans got a scare at the outset after he double-bogeyed his second hole, but strong approach shots and a good putter when needed kept him in the running heading into Friday.
“It kept me in the golf tournament. I could have easily gone the other way, being 3 over through two,” Woods said. “A lot of things could happen. Not a lot of them were positive, but I hung in there and turned it around. This afternoon the guys are going to face a little more wind than we did this morning. Just happy to be within five right now.”
The greens have been a talking point throughout the week after early reports showed some bare spots on various holes throughout the course. Asked his thoughts on the subject, Tiger seemed less than plussed with them.
“They’re bumpy, for sure. They’re quicker than they were on the practice rounds,” Woods said. “They were saving them. But they’re still on the slower side than what we normally play week in and week out. The shorter putts are a little more interesting because they’re a little chewed up. They’re trying to give us some flat spots around the hole, but they’re not really difficult pins and not really tucked. But still they’re tough.”
McIlroy also finished even while Thomas took a -1 into the locker room, with the three set to re-tee off Friday at 1:48 p.m. No doubt all wishing for lower numbers, the trio all enjoy competing against one another while in the same pairing.
“These two guys have been basically at the top of the world for the last four or five years now consistently,” Woods said. “I don’t get a chance to play with him very often. I haven’t played with Rory in a long time. I play with J.T. at home in practice rounds, but I haven’t played with Rory in a very long time. It was fun to get out there and compete.”
“I said to Harry out there; Harry caddied for me in the 2005 Irish Open when I was 16, and then we’re walking the fairways in a group like this today, 13 years later. So it’s pretty cool,” McIlroy said. “It’s always nice to be a part of these groups. You know, it’s something that I have sort of got used to, and that’s a nice position to be in in this game.”
Defending champion Thomas admitted butterflies the first few times he played alongside Woods, but those butterflies are dead when it comes to taking the Wannamaker home another year.
“It’s enjoyable. I’m worried about what I’m doing, and he’s worried about what he’s doing, and Rory is worried about what he’s doing,” Thomas said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to where I’ve played with him enough now that I don’t — I don’t want to say get wrapped up in it, but the first couple times I maybe played a little bit more attention to what he’s doing, but now this is a PGA Championship, and I’m trying to play the best that I can. So I’m focusing on what I’m doing.”
Stay tuned to 101 ESPN and 101Sports.com for plenty more PGA Championship coverage from Bellerive.